Friday, August 7, 2009

To Prop or Not to Prop - That is the Question

Just a quick and lazy Friday afternoon post here.

Lots of gamers try to include props of some sort with their gaming sessions. Props can range from "in-game" maps made to look like what the PCs would actually have, to letters or notes, to various other visual aids. In addition, some GMs like to use physical aids like "gold pieces" or other forms of coins, faux jewels, goblets, idols, or other items to keep around the gaming table in order to add some atmosphere to the game. I've even been in games (and GMed a few) where prop weapons were fetched and kept handy just to give players more of the badass vibe (as long as they didn't break anything/one with 'em).

In addition, there's also things like mood music meant to actually be diagetic music (i.e., in-scene music playing around the characters), food served at the gaming table meant to simulate the sorts of fare the PCs might be eating, and some gamers might even take it as far as wearing prop costumes of some sorts (which isn't necessarily bleeding into LARP territory - putting a horned viking hat on your head while playing your D&D barbarian doesn't make you a LARPer).

Beyond this, some might consider using miniatures, battle-maps, and miniatures terrain a form of visual prop, because it aids in visualizing the gameplay and helps put you "into the game". I imagine that if the minis were used in situations other than combat (for example, to show where the PCs are in an inn, or in the audience chamber of a king), this would help take a step away from "RPG as Wargame" and further move the idea into the realm of visual props.

So I ask you, the readers, what sorts of props do you use around your gaming tables, what sorts of props do you wish you used if you had the time and / or money, and which do you think are silly and / or inappropriate?


Mik said...

Props are a must, even if it's just a map or some figures for marching order. One thing we usually don't go without is music; mood music is key and makes dramatic scenes, cut scenes, and battles much more cinematic. If it's a visual intensive game we'll break out the dry erase grid map.

We eat (and drink) while gaming, but not in the vein of game-related foods, and the thought of LARP type costuming, well, just isn't for us.

We also use poker chips, counters, and the like for action points, GM rewards, and what-not. It's fun to jump into a scene in-game while tossing a chip to the center of the table to declare as such.

Darkwing said...

I definitely agree that props are a must. There's nothing better than making a cool-looking map or ransom letter or what have you and have the players eagerly get up from their chairs, crowd around it and and make plans. It goes a long way to getting the players involved in the game.

Miniatures are great for keeping track of the situation--but a whiteboard will achieve the same result. If you have them, use them, but it's not a huge loss without them.

Mood music is key--but you need it to remain in the background, influencing the mood, but not intruding upon the game.

Mood props such as goblets, swords, etc., I think can actually detract from the game. These things are cool, and people are going to want to goof off and play with them while the game is going on, which will distract them from the game itself. "Hey, put the sword down and roll for initiative already. You're going to take off someone's head with that thing..."

Dyskko said...

I have rules for props.
1) Use them.
2) Give them to the players.
3) Make them cool and worth keeping.
4) Make props just for the sake of making props so that players don't think that if there's a prop it must be plot related or actually a creature, sometimes a prop is just a prop.

I've been the DM for the Dungeon Divas for the last two years. We've been playing every week for the last two years.

Just last week, a player was going through her bag of stuff, and looked through all the stray bits of paper and props she'd collected. It made her remember some plot points. Then the rest of the players did the same thing.

So props:
1) add fun to the game
2) provide a reference point to remember plot
3) can represent a valuable item that you want players to be responsible for keeping track of.

You can read our blog here:

In the tag cloud in upper left, choose "props" and you can look at all the blog posts with that tag.

Badelaire said...

I really dig the idea of a "bag of props" that players can dig through - very cool.

Blog #126 added to the 'roll...


Tim said...

I don't go for a lot of props when I GM, except for one time. Was running Paranoia at a convention. Told them all it was the middle of the nightcycle and they were in bed. Had them close their eyes and lay their heads on the table. Spoke in soothing tones as I gave them their backgrounds. Then Friend Computer announced there was a Mission Alert, waking them with the freon air horn I had earlier hidden in the room. I think everyone soiled themselves. But it really set the mood of the game from that point on.

Howarth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timeshadows said...

Perhaps everyone else has nicer/better players, but I gave up on that stuff around age 16 after I went through a lot of effort and received very little to no appreciation.

Subsequently, I will draw maps, and that's about it.
--My only exception is if it is a one, possibly two, player session/game, in which case I will draw more detailed maps and draw little character and NPC scraps of paper and we'll scoot them around.

Ingrates. > grumble-grumble <

Beth said...

It is a burden for DMs, for sure, making the map or the ransom note on parchment. For our group we get excited like kids when Michelle pulls out a new edition of the Cauldron Herald. (It's a way for us to get general news without spending time chatting up barmaids and townspeople.)

grumpykiwi said...

Maps, big maps. My brother and fellow gamer works for a print shop, so A1 sized full colour maps are a real bonus. Figures of course.

For my Millennium's End games, everyone got a corporate ID badge they had to wear with their characters picture on it. When they were posing as members of the press, I did some fake Press ID badges too.

For some reason my players dislike background music, maybe it's just my choice of music.

Badelaire said...

@TimeShadows: That is a shame. As with many gaming related efforts, as with all things in life really, if effort isn't appreciated and that appreciation reinforced, the effort quickly dies off. I used to be a lot more time-intensive in my GMing efforts and designed some very cool props, but these days, not so much. My gamers are mostly not "gamers" but friends who have fun killing stuff by rolling dice together. I am jealous of Beth's gaming group!

@Grumpy Kiwi: Modern settings these days are very easy to prop. I used to print out "assignment letters" for my modern gaming missions, and I imagine things like google maps are just making life easier.

Tacoma said...

For a spy game, you can add a lot by making up dossiers with photographs and background info made with a "typewriter" font.

I used to use wargaming terrain that I made for D&D but it blocked line of sight and wasn't modular enough. Storage was a problem. Now I'm working on laminated dungeon tiles which can be easily stored, made in great variety with little effort, and drawn on with markers during the game.

Figurines of some kind are a must. I used to paint lead figures, but now I've come to love the prepainted plastic ones. Throw them all in a bag and go!

And we have a wet-erase mat with permanent squares, 30 inches by 40 inches or so. If we need to draw something out.

I make lots of maps. But the players don't generally get MY map. I make up "player maps" which are fragments of the whole. These are found in-game sometimes, maybe a previous explorer of the dungeon had a map, that sort of thing. They're sometimes inaccurate and occasionally have secret doors marked.

I don't use music because we have a player whose hearing isn't the best. It's tough for him to hear the DM when everyone is talking, much less when there's background music.

Barad the Gnome said...

Minis - we've been using them forever and don't even think of them as props anymore... they are integral. One of our group has a ginormous collection of WotC minis for monsters.

Battle map - we have taken to using a flip chart with a pre-printed grid. I have a large bin full of map props (mini trees, rocks, and assorted strange things that make nice map adornments as needed). Its convenient to be able to draw on the battle map - and toss it when the adventure is done.

Maps - this is a very long term compaign so maps were developed and have been used repeatedly making the investment quite worthwhile.

Misc - I like to randomly give them items like notes (using script fonts and often on 'aged', 'weather', or 'damaged' paper), tubes, boxes, strange keys, candles, etc to make it more tangible. It seems to help the mood. I don't do it for everything so it isn't expected so much as hoped for. :)

Anonymous said...